This is a cross post of Conflict of Interest on Houston Red Light Cameras that I posted on The Chron site. Please comment on the Chron site directly.
The Houston Red Light Cameras, as currently implemented, are a bad idea for only one reason and that reason is MONEY.
Beginning with the end in mind, if red light traffic enforcement removed all financial incentives to private or public entities to raise money and instead created incentives to get to zero-red-lights-run, zero-tickets-issued-to-citizens and zero-accidents then we might have a good safety program.
First the flaws. Anyone who has ever worked commission sales knows that commissions are in place to create a financial incentive for the salesperson to make a sale. No sale – you make nothing. The moment City Council agreed to have the traffic light cameras installed with an expected revenue level (call it a “cut” or “commission” or “kick-back”, whatever) for the company, we as citizens of Houston were put in a compromised position. Agreeing to “financial performance” for the private company to ticket citizens, not to reduce crime or to increase safety, is tantamount to selling their fellow citizens out for financial gain. Only someone unfamiliar with sociology or on a company’s payroll would consider such a thing.
As one commenter on this post noted “…if you really care about reducing accidents and violations you can get BETTER results than cameras through sound proven engineering methods like lengthening the yellow lights.” That is tough to argue with. But don’t take their word for it, let’s look at the mission of American Traffic Solutions, Inc.
“Our mission is to deliver the most effective technology and services that reduce operating costs or generate revenue to pay for its use.”
Yes it is true that the description of services right before that says they provide “road safety camera and automated toll collection programs focused on our clients’ safety, mobility and enforcement needs.” But their “client” isn’t the citizen of Houston going through the 0.5 second yellow light and getting a ticket/civil citation. Rather the client is the city that is facing a budget shortfall. And while ATS may say they are “focused on safety”, it is a company’s MISSION that drives it. And the ATS mission is to “generate revenue” not to increase safety. The home page for ATS makes no mention of reducing the incidence of red light running or achieving the goal of zero red lights run and zero tickets issued. And why should it? They are a company and like all companies the goal is, out of necessity, profit. (Disclaimer: so are we.)
And hey, the Houston red-light-gotcha money is good!
Houston pays a flat monthly fee of $3,000 per camera, plus bonuses if a camera catches a high number of violations.
What is the financial incentive to ATS? The incentive is to catch a HIGHEST NUMBER OF VIOLATORS. The incentive is NOT to reduce people running the light which would reduce violations which would reduce accidents and increase safety.
Do red light cameras increase safety? No clear answer beyond anecdotal. In the article Spy-and-Snap Red-Light Cameras Will Enrich Private Company At Palm Coast’s Expense about Palm Coast Florida, apparently a change in state law eliminated the commission based system for ticketing citizens. This led to ATS offering up three options, all of which siphoned money out of Palm Coast and into ATS with questionable improvements in safety. But for what safety improvements? The bill from the Florida Legislature included this description:
The results do not support the conventional wisdom expressed in recent literature and popular press that red light cameras reduce accidents…. Our findings are more pessimistic, finding no change in angle accidents and large increases in rear-end crashes and many other types of crashes relative to other intersections. We did find a decrease in accidents involving a vehicle turning left and a vehicle on the same roadway, which may have been included as an angle accident in some other studies. However, given that these left turn accidents occur only one third as often as angle accidents, and the fact that we find no benefit from decreasing severity of accidents suggests that there has been no demonstrable benefit from the RLC [red light camera] program in terms of safety. In many ways, the evidence points toward the installation of RLCs as a detriment to safety.
A quick google search shows I won’t settle the issue of if red light cameras increase or decrease accidents in Houston. I have read enough to know that there are two sides to the debate and it isn’t a slam dunk either way.
So how do we solve red light running? How do we increase safety? Again going to the Florida bill they state there are four concrete things that can be done to INCREASE SAFETY:
- Improving signal head visibility.
- All-red interval. An all-red clearance interval, where the traffic signals on all sides are red for a period of time, provides additional time for motorists
- Appropriate yellow times.
- Traffic signal coordination.
Additionally the Facebook video on red light cameras produced by Texas Pictures has a Houston Police Officer stating “if we collected no money and no one ran the red light we would be totally satisfied with that. Because we know if you haven’t run the red light you haven’t endangered yourself or others.” (minute 7:15). I believe 100% that is the officers goal. I do not however believe zero citations would be acceptable to ATS or City Council, and that is the problem.
It’s not all bad. Not without hope. This financial data from Garland Texas in the fiscal notes of chapter 707 of the TX Transportation Code (via Chron) suggests some municipalities may be focused on safety over profit.
The city (Garland) generated over $1 million in the first year of operation (2004), followed by $1.4 million in 2005, the first full year of operation. Since then, revenues have dropped substantially, with receipts of $0.8 million in 2006 and $0.09 million for 2007 year-to-date.
That is a GOOD thing from the citizen’s perspective. It means people are driving safer and the city is looking out for their best interest. On the other hand, the current DARLEP system in Houston can be compared to OCP’s incentive to reduce crime in Detroit; a mere fiction. And apparently a very expensive fiction to produce.
Am I against red light cameras? NO. I agree with the HPD officers in the FB video that I’d like to see zero citations and zero accidents. That solution requires civil engineers, police officers, traffic safety specialists. And that solution requires the removal of all financial incentives to count ticket revenue on the part of a private corporation or a city facing a budget shortfall. That solution requires incentives that focus on one thing and one thing only; SAFETY. The current system does not.
When you vote on November 2, 2010, Proposition 3 will look like this.
City of Houston, PROPOSITION NO. 3 CHARTER AMENDMENT PROPOSITION
An Amendment to the City Charter Relating to the Use of Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement Systems (Red Light Cameras).
Shall the City of Houston continue to use red light cameras to enforce state or local laws relating to traffic safety?